The current Christian Chronicle poses the question of how churches should respond to benevolence requests, especially during hard economic times. Ironically, as need increases, available resources dwindle. So churches have to be compassionate, but careful. We have to be good stewards of what God has given us, but we also have to take advantage of what God gives us in terms of opportunities to do good.
The catch is that in my experience — both as full-time Benevolence Minister for a congregation in downtown Nashville and later in eleven years of full-time pulpit ministry — people who ask for help are the ones who are least likely to benefit from what churches typically provide.
Part of the problem is in the recipients themselves. Some are, to put it bluntly, scammers. They find their mark and strike. Others have been dependent on others for so long they don’t have any ability to care for themselves. In many cases, they have even lost the interest in doing so. One client in particular I remember once said she needed the church to pay her light bill so she could pay for her cable TV. This isn’t dishonest or sinful; it’s just stupid. And as long as these folks know someone will take care of them, they have no reason to change.
The real tragedy is, the people who could most benefit from a “hand up” from a church are those least likely to get it. Either they don’t know to ask for help, or they assume that if they do ask for help the church will assume they are either a dependent or a scammer. Sometimes pride gets in the way of asking for help — financial or otherwise.
But a significant part of the problem lies in how churches go about their benevolence work. Typically, the process of a church addressing a benevolence need begins when the person asks for help. Herein lies the rub. In my experience, beneviolence cases are much like calls for pastoral counseling. By the time you get to my office, you need more help than I an equipped to provide.
Acts 3:6 is instructive on this topic. There, Peter tells the beggar at the temple, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I have I give you — in the name of Jesus, rise up and walk.” Too much of church benevolence is aimed at making us feel better about ourselves by how “helpful” we are. But the reality is that much of what we call “help” actually does more harm than good. Either we perpetuate dependence or we pay a “scammer” to go away, all the while believeing that being lighter on the pocket makes us “good people.” In all my time in ministry, I have never known of a person to ask for money, get it, and be better off because they did. Our objective is not to feel good about ourselves, but to actually help people.
If churches want to make a significant dent in the needs of their neighbors, instead of sitting back and waiting for the requests to come to us, we should instead go looking for opportunities to be helpful. Benevolence should be proactive instead of reactive. If we know of a neighbor who has fallen on hard times, going to them before they are forced to come to us maintains their dignity — allowing them to stand on their own two feet.
It also opens a door for a long-term, and perhaps eternal, relationship.